Wednesday, December 28, 2005

If You Want to Make God Laugh...

Alternate Title: Why I Suck So Much
My friend Rob has a saying, "If you want to make God laugh, just tell him what your plans are."

Its a fun little saying and I get a kick out of it...Until I get to a situation when it actually applies. And then it doesn't seem so cute anymore.

Case in Point: This Winter vacation I was planning on going back to America and bringing Shoko with me. As I wrote previously I always have mixed feelings about these trips back, but I was really looking forward to Shoko being there.

For example one that 13 hour plane ride back home I would at least have some company. And during the long boring weekday afternoons when all my friends were working I would have Shoko to hang out with.

Not to mention the benefits of returning with a beautiful Japanese girl on my arm. And Shoko really is a lovely person. She's energetic and bubbly and has a real happy personality. (Occasionally laughs to much at her own jokes, but no one is perfect.) And as for her limited English, it would be just an excuse for me to show off my Japanese. I was thinking this year with Shoko accompanying me I would be able to return to America in style. Headline reads, "International Man of Mystery Returns Home with Japanese Beauty."

But then Shoko got sick right before we were supposed to fly out. She has lower back problems, which act up from time to time, aggrevated by a bit of the flu flown in. She called me saying she wasn't going to make it after all.

And suddenly, the whole picture changes. The headline now reads "Local loser in late 20's Returns Home to Hang Out With Married Friends". After all, here I was, almost 28 and still without a serious job, hanging around with my hands in my pockets saying "nope, nothing new over with me. Still doing the same job. Finish in March but I haven't a clue what I'm doing with my life after that." Many of my friends from college are married, some even have kids now, and a lot of them wouldn't be free to hang out with me. I started to remember incidents like when I returned two years ago, and my former roommates didn't even stop their poker game to say hi to me. I would spend two weeks on the phone begging people to hang out with me, even though I had been forgotten by everyone and their lives had moved on.

In fact I started to think, "Why am I even going back anyway? I'm going to be back in March permanently, and that's just around the corner. Why didn't I take this last holiday to go to Thailand like many of my JET friends are doing?"

So, I did what any good boyfriend would do. I guilt tripped Shoko into coming.

Pretty pathetic I know. But here's the thing: If she had been like, "Fuck me, I absolutely can't move a muscle, there's no way I could possibly make it..." (She wouldn't have used that kind of language, but you know what I mean). Then what could I have said to that but, "Well, okay, see you when I get back to Japan then."

But instead it was just a serious of what seemed to be small excuses: "I'm really worried I would just be a burden to your family if I was sick, and if you lived in a warm place it wouldn't be so bad but Michigan is so cold it would just make my flu worse. The 13 hour plane ride is going to be really bad for my back... et cetera."

So I said, "Listen, my family won't care, honestly. You can just relax the whole time you are here. As for the cold, we have this thing called 'Central heating' in America. You'll love it. You'll be warmer in Michigan than you would be in Japan. And you don't have to do anything on the plane. You just sit there. It won't be any problem. You've already bought the plane tickets, and we've been planning this for months, and besides I haven't seen you since August and I was really looking forward to this."

She persisted in her reluctance, so finally I just said coldly, "You just have so many excuses, don't you?"

And what could she do after that but agree to come.

I felt bad of course. The next day I called her up to say she didn't really have to come if she was worried about her health, but she was already on the bus to the airport at that point, so it was a little late. Besides she was feeling slightly better.

I think in the end it is good she decided to come and I'm sure she had a great time, but after having slept a night on it I'm pretty ashamed of having guilt tripped her into it. And (as I'm sure you've been thinking as you've been reading this), if I need the girl along to feel confident about meeting old friends, than that makes me the biggest loser of all. I'm really going to work in the future on not sucking quite so much.

Oh yeah, and I'm back in GR now, so give me a call if your around. I'd call you, but its so hard keeping track of everyone's new numbers when you've been gone for a year. I'm at my parents house still, same number as always (dig out the old Calvin Bod books).

Shoko's around as well. She's not on top form, so she's sleeping and resting a lot. I can (and have) been going out socially while she's sleeping, but trying to be a good host as well. Somewhat inconvenient, but I'm the one who created this situation

Link of the Day
Of course when I talk about old friends I'm talking in general terms. There are those few good friends who the passage of time and life changes never seems to affect anything, and Brett is one of those people for me. But he also has a good post on the awkwardness of meeting old friends.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

My Lonely Christmas in Japan


Winter
Last year we didn’t get any snow until January. This year we’ve had quite a lot of snow already. According to the locals it is a 50-year record snowfall for December.

At the elementary school especially I’ve been playing in the snow with the kids a lot. I’m brushing up on the new vocabulary I learned last year, re-learning the Japanese words for “snow fort” “snow man” and “snowball fight”.

I’m also re-learning that I have no aim. When I go out onto the playground, I become a huge target for all the kids to throw snowballs at and I, for the life of me, can not seem to hit one of the little buggers with my terrible aim. I resort instead to tackling the kids. It’s pretty exhausting when it’s everyone against me. And I tackled a 3rd grade boy too hard last week and made him cry. I felt pretty bad about that.

Driving has become a bit more of an adventure (remember my post about no snow-plows in Japan). However, in contrast to the busing culture of the states, all the kids here either walk or bike to school, so they don’t call snow days quite as quick as they do back home. We did have one two-hour delay though, and another day where we sent the kids home two hours earlier. None of this really matters for me though because the teachers still keep to their normal hours no matter what the weather. Even when all the classes were cancelled because of the typhoon, we all still had to come in and sit at our desks.

However the teachers “Bounenkai party” was cancelled last week. “Bounenkai” literally translates as “forget the year party”. Lots of sake and alcohol are used to aid in this noble endeavor. To us it may seem like just debauchery, but it’s a tremendously important part any Japanese work place. They believe the only time you truly bond with co-workers is when you are drinking with them.

I couldn’t believe they cancelled the party. Don’t get me wrong, I was partly relieved at the same time, but it is such an important part of the Japanese work place I didn’t think they were allowed to cancel it.

Christmas
As I wrote last year Christmas, at least on a superficial level, seems to be really catching on in Japan. All the stores play sappy Christmas music, and you see Christmas trees and holiday decorations everywhere. Did I mention how much I hate Christmas music? Even in Japan you can’t get away from it.

Friday the 23rd was a national holiday because of the emperor’s birthday, so we had a nice 3-day weekend. And then everybody comes back for one last day of school on the 26th, before Winter break starts. It’s really a waste. I had this nice long 3-day weekend, but I couldn’t take off and leave Japan yet because I’ve got one last day of school on the 26th. They deliberately make the holidays inconvenient like this because they don’t want the students having too much free time at once and getting into trouble. Not kidding.

But I suppose with all the school holidays I get, I really can’t complain. And what’s more, after Christmas the ticket prices suddenly become a lot more reasonable. I’m can use frequent flier miles to get home because I fly out on the 27th.

Because my school gets out later than most, my JET friends had already taken off on vacation by the time Christmas weekend came around. In the weeks leading up to Christmas however we had several small Christmas parties, and those were a lot of fun.

On the emperor’s birthday I went out to eat with a Japanese friend, and then she took me to see the Christmas lights at a local park. We listened to a Japanese lady on the stage murder a number of Christmas songs, and had a good laugh about it. It started sleeting snow/rain later in the evening, so we found a coffee shop and where we were nice and warm but could watch the snow fall through the windows. That was a really good day.

But Christmas eve and Christmas itself there was absolutely no one around. I went to the library, returned all my overdue books, went to Starbucks with the new books I checked out, and spent the evening talking to a couple guys I barely knew in the local foreign bar.

Christmas in Japan has somehow evolved into a romantic “Valentine’s” type holiday. I hate those types of holidays. The only reason they exist is to make you feel bad. If you don’t have a girlfriend you spend the whole day feeling depressed and lonely. And if you do have a girlfriend, then you’re under some tremendous sort of pressure to create the most expensive romantic night ever.

With no girl friend in Gifu, I fell into the former category this year. I saw couples everywhere I went, but wandered around with just my books to keep me company. Pretty depressing Christmas really.

Link of the Day
some (post) Christmas thoughts:
The story goes that when the nonviolent Jesus was born into abject poverty to homeless refugees on the outskirts of a brutal empire, angels appeared in the sky to impoverished shepherds singing, "Glory to God in the highest and peace on earth!" That child grew up to become, in Gandhi's words, "the greatest nonviolent resister in the history of the world," and was subsequently executed by the empire for his insistence on justice.

This weekend, as tens of millions of Christians across the country celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace, the US wages war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Colombia and elsewhere; crushes the hungry, homeless, elderly, imprisoned and refugee; and maintains the world's ultimate terrorist threat - its nuclear arsenal.

Sunday, December 25, 2005

Just a Reminder...

I’ll be back in Grand Rapids from December 27 to January 8. Plan your schedules accordingly and let me know if you’re interested in hanging out.

Shoko is coming with me as well. It’s not her first trip to the States. She spent two weeks in New York a few years ago. She was hoping to do some sight seeing, but wasn’t able to see much due to some unfortunate timing. Her plane landed in New York the morning of September 11, 2001. The rest of the time she was in New York most of the tourist destinations were closed down. But that’s her story really, and you should ask her about it if you get the chance.

Although this won’t be quite as bad as when I took 8 Japanese students on a home stay, obviously it will be a bit of a balancing act between entertaining Shoko and spending time with friends. In addition to the usual awkwardness of introducing a new girl to old friends, Shoko’s limited English might make it hard to integrate her into the conversation.

Shoko's a bit nervous as well in part because of what I've been writing on this weblog. "Everyone's going to think I'm really stupid because of what you wrote," she said. "I'll just have to introduce myself and say, 'Hello, I'm the Japanese girl who doesn't know anything.'"

"I didn't say you were stupid," I said. "I said Japanese people in general were ignorant."

"You said Japanese people were ignorant and then you used me as an example."

"Oh, yeah I guess I did do that once."

"Repeatedly," she insisted.

So, if I've given the impression that Shoko's not that bright, I apologize. In a lot of ways, she's doing a lot better job of running her life than I am with mine.

Anyway, if having Shoko with me cuts into time with friends, the silver lining is of course that I’ll be back home permanently come March.

In fact a lot of Japanese friends have asked me, “Since you’re leaving in March anyway, why go home for winter vacation?”

I don’t really have a good answer to this except that I just want to go home. It’s been a year since I was last back, and around the year mark I always start to get really homesick and sentimental.

It seems like it has been an eternity since I was last home and saw old friends. I start to really miss everyone, and reproach myself for spending so much time in Japan, and allowing myself to grow distant from my friends and family.

And yet the past couple years, despite feeling desperately homesick the weeks before Winter vacation, before my break was even over I was eager to return to Japan. I’m not sure why that is. The feeling that I no longer fit in back home, or perhaps the fact that my job, friends, social circle, and life are all now located in Japan? Signs of reverse culture shock? Having too much time on my hands because my friends were working during the day? Or perhaps, as Dean Dozeman surmised, the human instinct to always despise our present surroundings and our constant longing to be somewhere else.

At any rate, come March I’ll have to deal with it permanently, so this Christmas break will be good practice if the same feelings do arise. At present I’m so homesick that I can’t imagine getting to America and then wanting to go back to Japan. But then that’s how I felt this time last year.

I miss my family a lot too, but last year it was amazing how, even having been away for so long, I quickly started bickering with my siblings again. Within 4 days after my return my youngest sister started screaming at me because she felt that my being in the same room interfered with her enjoyment of watching TV. (I think because she felt embarrassed that she was watching cartoons. I’m not really sure actually. Perhaps my tendency to ask questions about the plot was what did it. I made a token effort of sticking around just because I didn’t want to look like I was giving into the yelling, but then the screaming only increased, and I gave in.)

My brother and I share a bedroom suite, and there was a rather heated discussion about whether or not he had the habit of slamming the door in the morning.

I’d like to think that at 27 I’ve out grown this kind of sibling squabbling, but apparently not.

Link of the Day
I've rediscovered Steph's blog through Chris Powell's links. Great source of pictures.
A picture really is worth a thousand words. I spent a great deal of time trying to describe the waterfall in this post. All I really needed to do was link to Steph's picture here.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

Thoughts on the Culture Wars

Last year I wrote on this blog that the reasons I hate Christmas are:

1. Christmas was too materialistic
2. that the sappy morality of "Christmas spirit" espoused in TV specials was worthless, and
3. that calls to remember "the true meaning of Christmas" were just another front in the culture wars, as in "this is our holiday and we're going to take it back from those secularists"

My horrible prose aside, it seems that I was ahead of my time on the 3rd point. Maybe the media has been making a bigger deal out of it than it should, but even over in Japan I have been hearing about the "Happy Holidays\ Merry Christmas" controversy. Phil and Melissa have both written excellent posts on this, and they have inspired me to chip in with my two cents as well.

A lot of people aren't thinking very carefully about what they are doing. Was anyone ever brought to Christ because of a storefront display that said, "Merry Christmas"? Are we seriously thinking about what God wants, or are we just rushing ahead into the next battle in the culture wars.

Perhaps one of my favorite seminary students or PKs can correct me on this, but I think we need to make a distinction between what glorifies God and what glorifies us as Christians.
It strikes me that most of the culture wars are not about glorifying God, but ensuring that we as Christians are respected.

I think that ideally Christians should be willing to sacrifice our respect for the glory of God. If it would bring glory to God, we should be willing to let men say all sorts of evil about us or endure all sorts of indignities. In short we should be willing to play "the bigger man" in these sorts of situations.

Unfortunately it seems that most of the Christians in America are the most whiney snivelling bunch you could ever imagine. Their insistence on symbolic victories to ensure the earthly respect of the Church is actually driving many people away from God, and thus having the opposite of their intended effect.

This is true of most elements of the culture wars. Take for instance the "ten commandments" in the court house. ("Yes! We're number one!")

The words "under God" in the pledge of allegiance. ("Take that! In your face, secularists!")

Speaking of the ten commandments, I'm reminded of the 3rd commandment: "Do not take the name of God your Lord in vain. God will not allow the one who takes His name in vain to go unpunished". These are obviously pretty strong words.

Most people assume this means that we shouldn't use "God" as an exclamation, as in "Oh my God!" I of course am open to correction by a seminary student, but I'm skeptical of this.

After all the English word "God" wouldn't even be invented for thousands of years after the Ten Commandments were written. The commandment at the time referred to the Jewish word "Yahweh". The English word "God" wouldn't be used until the missionaries used the word for the Germanic deity to explain Christianity to the Barbarian tribes. And even then the spelling and pronunciation of the original German has evolved over time. So I think it's kind of arbitrary to think that the 3rd commandment refers to using the English word "God" as an exclamation.

Instead, what I think this commandment refers to is exploiting God's name for our own purposes. Like when Bush claims God told him to invade Iraq. Or when we use God's name as an "in your face" to the secularist as part of our cultural wars, such as by inserting it in the pledge of allegiance. I believe this is what the 3rd commandment refers to when it says, "God will not allow anyone who takes his name in vain to go unpunished."

Link of the Day
Since I started listening to Audio Books in Internet Cafes I have cut back on my NPR time. But every once and a while I forget the Audio books, and get a chance to catch up.
A friend alerted me to this interview with the new Beatles biographer.
And even more interesting is this program on Bart Ehrman's 'Misquoting Jesus'

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Applications

I finish my current job in March, and so it’s already time to start filling out applications for future positions.

And inevitably applications are always accompanied by rejection letters. I just got my first rejection notice today.

It was for the Peace Boat, which was only a 3-month volunteer position. So it isn’t quite the same as getting rejected for a full job (although I’m sure I’ll have my fair share of that soon enough as well), although it was something I had wanted to do for a while.

At least I was not surprised. When I sent the application packet into the mail last week, I knew it was pretty crappy. If there was any sort of competition (and apparently there always is for volunteer positions), I didn’t doubt that I would be one of the first ones out.

For the application I had to design 3 sample English lessons. Although this is what I do everyday, I usually just through stuff together from bits and pieces of other lessons, or use the materials provided by my company. Plus obviously on an application you want to put something special, rather than just an average “practice how to introduce yourself in English” lesson. When it came to designing original special lesson that would be evaluated on an application, I completely froze.

For one thing originality is not my strong point. When I was doing my teacher aiding at Pathfinders High school, I remember a teacher took me aside once and said, “Look, I know all you student teachers feel like you need to work real hard to come up with your own lessons, but you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you go into a classroom. There are loads of materials and lesson plans already out there, and there’s nothing wrong with using them.” And I have really followed that advice.

Also I needed to design a non-language related activity I would like to organize on the boat. Again, a complete blank. I tried to think of what special talents or skills that I had. (Apparently past examples featured things like DJ parties or Drum lessons). I came to the conclusion that I had absolutely no talents.

Eventually I decided it was a bit over my head. The kind of people who get accepted for these positions are people who had been camp consulers in high school, or R.A.s at College. They are not people like me who half ass their way through life and try and get by everything with the least amount of effort possible.

The only reason I finished the application was because I would be out of a job by March, and I knew I couldn’t start getting scared off by these things. But writing an application is the worst thing ever. Man, do I really hate doing applications. I don’t think there’s anything I wouldn’t rather do instead of writing applications.

It is amazing what I would rather do instead.

Last Weekend I deliberately stayed in and turned down social invitations to work on the application. Instead I ended up doing everything except. I even cleaned my apartment, and organized my bills, and then made a special trip to the store to pay all the bills I was late on. That’s how much I hate applications.

I do throw a lot of junk up on this blog, and although to a certain extent that probably helps my writing, to a certain extent it doesn’t. It’s hard for me to structure myself after being so used to blogging. Usually when I blog I have a couple free class periods in the afternoon, I sit down at the computer with a cup of coffee, and I think: “So, what do I feel like writing about today?” I’m not used to disciplining myself into being concise and organized, and I felt it writing those applications. My brain still hurts.

Finally at the last minute I threw an application together, putting in very average and unexciting lesson plans, and designing an “Earth Day Treasure Hunt” as my non-language activity. I got the thing in the mail just under the deadline. It really sucked hard core. I’m a bit disappointed by the rejection notice, but not surprised.

Link of the Day
Via Tom Tomorrow: A senior at UMass Dartmouth was visited by federal agents two months ago, after he requested a copy of Mao Tse-Tung's tome on Communism called "The Little Red Book."

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Starbucks and Me

Starbucks is very popular in Japan. I even think it’s more popular here than it is back home.

Other JETs think I’m nuts for saying this. “There’s a Starbucks practically every block in Nagoya,” I say.

“There’s a Starbucks every ten feet back home,” the other JETs respond.

But I think the difference is that a lot of these other JETs are from the West Coast. In Grand Rapids Michigan things are a bit different. Before I came to Japan, I only saw the inside of a Starbucks once. (I don’t know if things have changed over the five years I’ve been in Japan or not.)

As a nominal anarchist, I know I’m supposed to hate Starbucks, but I can’t remember why. It’s a big corporation, but everyplace is owned by a big corporation these days. And they have fair trade coffee, so they can’t be that bad, right?

Perhaps someone could educate me on this point. In the meantime, I have been spending a lot of time at my local Starbucks (as I’ve written before). It’s a popular hangout for other foreigners, and so it is a great place to just pop in without plans and meet someone I know. Kind of like a local bar I guess, only the coffee shop version.

Last Saturday my friend Adam invited me to a “coffee tasting” event at Starbucks. “The staff told me to invite some friends,” he said.

So, Saturday morning I went. It was a bit bizarre and I’m still not exactly sure what was going on. It was Saturday afternoon, so the place was packed with normal customers, but at one of the long tables Adam and I and a few other people had a private little party with some of the Starbucks staff, where we were served free coffee and sweetbread. Why just the few of us were subject to this special treatment I have no idea.

But it was a good time. The Starbucks staff were all roughly the same age as us (in their 20s) and although I knew them on sight, I had never had the opportunity to talk to them before. They were dressed up in Santa uniforms (Japan, for whatever reason, seems to be big on making people wear uniforms that take away their dignity). And we started the party by going around and saying which Starbucks drink we like best.

But other than that they were all intelligent people and I enjoyed getting to know them better. For instance it turns out one of the staff shares my interest in the Revolutions of 1848. Another one was studying veterinary science at the local University. Since I often go to this Starbucks, I was glad for the opportunity to get to know the staff better.

Unfortunately however, our local branch is shutting down at the end of this month to make room for road construction. That will be the sad end of an era here. I’ll survive I’m sure. I survived when the old Usa hang out, Tropicoco, moved into Nakatsu.

But don’t tell anyone I’m sorry to see the Starbucks go, or I’ll never be able to show my face in progressive circles again.

Link of the Day
Obviously the NSA scandel doesn't need any more help in plubicity from me. We've past the outrage overload with Bush a long time ago, so I'm really at a loss for words on this one. Fortunately not everyone else is. Phil has a few thoughts. Media Mouse has a good post. But I find myself most agreeing with Dan Luke:
For those keeping score at home
secret prisons + torture + domestic spying + lying about it != impeachment
committing perjury (while trying to cover up an extramarital affair) == impeachment


If this isn't grounds for impeachment, I don't know what is.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Memoirs of a Geisha

Since I’ve started this blog, I’ve made a habit of commenting on American movies that come out with Japanese themes, such as Kill Bill, The Last Samurai, Lost in Translation, and The Grudge.

It’s interesting for me to try and observe how these movies are perceived over here for a couple of reasons. For one, Japanese people are absolutely in love with American movies. American movies consistently do better in Japan than Japanese movies. And, outside of the US domestic market, Japan is the number one in foreign box office profits. Many American movie stars are more popular in Japan than they are back home.

Also, Japan is obsessed with itself. Some people say Japan has an inferiority complex. Some say Japan has a superiority complex. Really it’s probably a little bit of both. But Japan is really concerned with the way the rest of the world sees it. For example when Matsui and Ichiro became American baseball stars, the Japan nightly news correspondents would routinely say things like, “When I saw American children cheering for Ichiro, I never felt so proud to be Japanese.”

So, given both of these factors, I really expected Japanese people to be doing back flips in excitement when all these American movies about Japan started coming out.

But they didn’t. “Kill Bill” did fairly well over here, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of excitement either in the media or among my Japanese friends. “Lost in Translation” was never even released in the theaters. You can find it on video now, but most Japanese people still don’t even know it exists.

“The Grudge” also passed away like a ghost in the night. I would never even have heard about it if I hadn’t stumbled on “The Japan Times” review while reading my evening paper.

The exception to this was “The Last Samurai” which generated a huge amount of excitement. For months it was all my students and Japanese friends would talk about. The movie had more ticket sales in Japan than in America.

But if you ask any Japanese person why they liked “Last Samurai” so much, the answer is always the same: “Tomu Kuruuzu”. And so, perhaps “The Last Samurai” is the exception that proves the rule. Japanese people enjoyed the nod to their traditions and culture, but what they really loved was the big Hollywood movie star. Japanese people don’t go to American movies to see about Japan. That’s what they have Japanese movies for. They go to American movies to see the tall blond haired and blue eyed American movie stars. 

Which makes it easy to foresee why “Memoirs of a Geisha” (or “Sayuri” as the movie has been re-titled in Japan) probably isn’t going to do so well here.

That, plus the decision to film it all in English, and cast Chinese and other non-Japanese Asian actresses in almost all of the leads. I remember reading about this film in September and commenting to a friend, “A Chinese actress in the lead? That’s not going to go over very well here.”

And it hasn’t. I don’t know how much of this has made the news back home, but there are a lot of angry Japanese people, and there have been calls by some Japanese bloggers to boycott this film.

But even if an official boycott doesn’t take place, what is really going to kill this film is just disinterest.

I don’t have a TV, so sometimes I can be a little out of the hype (like when I had to revise my entry on Kill Bill), and plus I’m no expert on Japan, I’m just some guy who’s over here teaching English. But I’ve probably talked to 20 or so Japanese friends about this film, and without exception they all said something like, “A Chinese actress as a Geisha? This film obviously wasn’t made for a Japanese audience. I don’t plan on seeing it.”

The director of the movie was quoted in the Japan Times as saying, “I just hired the best person for the part. I didn’t consider race in the casting decision.”

I read that and I thought, “Damn right!” Sure Zhang Ziyi isn’t a Japanese Geisha. Ken Watanabe wasn’t a Samurai. An actor by definition is someone who pretends to be someone they’re not. In American films we have British actors playing American soldiers, Australians playing American colonialists, New Zealanders playing middle eastern terrorists, Scottish actors playing British secret agents, and Australians playing Scotts. Do we whine about it?

So far though I’m standing on my own on this one. I haven’t been able to convince any of my Japanese friends, and even among the other foreigners people often say, “But don’t you think for something as central to Japanese cultural as a Geisha they should have found a Japanese actress?”

Usually when speaking to a Japanese person I try and bring the point up in very soft way. I might casually mention that we had British actors playing American soldiers in “Black Hawk Down”, and nobody got upset about it, but then leave it at that.

Only among Japanese people I know well do I feel comfortable being more confrontational. For instance when I spoke to Shoko, I asked, “Why are you people always so racist?”

“First of all don’t talk to me in that tone,” she answered. “Secondly you Americans are on top of the world and you know it, so you don’t need to feel insecure about these kind of things. But how do you think it makes us Japanese feel when Hollywood decided there wasn’t a single Japanese actress good enough to play the part? I guess it must have been because we can’t speak English.”

I’m not sure Zhang Ziyi was cast for her English abilities. In “Rush Hour 2”, for example, she didn’t speak a word of English the whole movie.  And if language is the primary concern, why not cast an Asian American?

But that’s the belief people have over here. Well aware that Japan is lagging behind other Asian countries in English ability, many Japanese people believe Zhang Ziyi was cast because no Japanese actress could speak English well enough. I’ve heard it from a number of people besides Shoko. Thus the casting of Zhang Ziyi is taken as a painful reminder of the failure that Japan’s language education program has been.

For what its worth, the racism is just as deep on the other side. According to The Japan Times, many Chinese have called Zhang Ziyi a traitor for taking the role, and called for her to be hacked into tiny pieces.

Because, as mentioned above, Japan is the number one foreign box office, Hollywood is most likely going to take a financial hit for their decision not to cast a Japanese actress. But good for them for not giving into racism, and allowing this silly feud between Japan and China to influence their casting decisions. Good to know Hollywood is putting its principals ahead of money. Its times like this when I feel proud to be an American. (Cue the patriotic music, scene of me wiping away a tear against a backdrop of the American flag and the Hollywood sign).

That is why they made that casting decision, isn’t it? Pure altruism on the part of Hollywood, right? It wouldn’t be because Zhang Ziyi is more recognizable than any Japanese actress, or because she has an exotic Asian sounding name and the average man in a pub doesn’t know the difference between China and Japan anyway? That’s just me being cynical, right?

The Japan times, always a good source of information, has a review of this movie by a Japanese woman, which focuses on the many inaccuracies in the film and an article on how this film is being treated in the Japanese media

While I’m on the subject, one more quick thought before I close this off. “The Karate Kid” series, which was for many in my generation our first introduction to Japan, is completely unknown here. People in Japan can talk with you about Star Trek, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lone Ranger, The Beatles and The Carpenters and all other sorts of Western pop culture. But no one has ever heard of “The Karate Kid.”

Link of the Day
Two Michigan Corporations Named among 2005’s Top Corporate Human Rights Violators

Also...Japan is a small country when you look at it on the map, but boy does it take forever to get from one end to the other. I haven't been able to get back to Oita since this summer because of the distance.
This Japan Times article does a good job of describing this phenomenon.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Complaining About the Cold

How time flies. It seems like only yesterday I was posting complaining about the heat. Now winter has arrived and snow is here.

Although Gifu is a lot colder than Kyushu was, it’s no worse than a standard Michigan winter.

As with summer, what really makes the weather unbearable is the different customs of dealing with it.

For example, “Central Heating” never really caught on in Japan for whatever reason. In its place, there are a million small ways they deal with the cold: Electric blankets, hot pocket warmers, heated toilet seats, kotatsu (a table which is heated underneath), small kerosene space heaters, etc.

As Eion observed, “In the West we heat up the whole building. In Japan they just heat up the area around the person.”

Perhaps all this saves energy, and a nominal environmentalist like myself should be happy, but I just can’t help but think how much I miss central heating.

Clothes driers are an almost unheard of luxury in Japan, so I dry all my clothes out by hanging. Works great in the summer, but in the winter they just freeze instead of dry. This was why I told Brett once that one of the things I miss most about America is having dry clothes to put on in the morning. And, in an apartment without central heating, you would not believe how cold it is in the morning getting out of the shower and trying to find some dry clothes.

Because the weather here is slightly colder, the schools are heated a little better than in Kyushu. But during January and February last year it was still not unusual to wear my winter coat to the classroom, or to see my breath while teaching.

What really kills me is there is no hot water in the school. This isn’t so much of a problem for the Japanese because most of them don’t wash their hands after using the bathroom anyway.

That, by the way, is another one of my pet peeves about Japan, but I’ll try not to get too much off topic here. Shoko assures me that most women wash their hands, but I haven’t had the opportunity to observe the ladies toilet. I can vouch that almost none of the guys wash their hands, and the ones that do only do a quick rinse. In five years I’ve never once seen a Japanese person lather up properly.

I, on the other hand, am a bit anal about hand washing. And in a full day of sipping coffee all day long in the teacher’s lounge, I get a lot of use out of the toilet. The hallways and bathroom aren’t heated at all, so it is literally freezing cold, and in that weather I have to scrub my hands in freezing water. And then to top it off, there are never any towels so I dry my hands on my sweater. By the end of the day my hands are always chafed and purple.

Snow driving is also more difficult here than it is back home because of the narrow roads and the small light cars. And no snow plows in Japan. Also there’s a special “snow tire” that we need to switch to in December.

I know absolutely nothing about cars, so I’m not sure why the Japanese switch to snow tires, and we use the same tires all year round in Michigan. Aaron explained it to me once but I forgot.

I got my tires switched in December last year, but then never bothered to switch them back again. I figured we use the same tires all year round in Michigan anyway. Now a lot of my Japanese colleagues are expressing concern that I might have worn the treads out on my snow tires by driving them the whole year, but so far no major problems.

Link of the Day
Racist Comics Gain Popularity in Japan. Boy, this is just depressing.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Thoughts on Japanese Literature

As you might expect, even in the English section, the bookstores and libraries here are filled with books on or about Japan. And, even in translation, I’ve done my best to avoid them.

Books about Japan I can stomach sometimes. But literature I view as pleasure reading, and I try to avoid stuff that reminds me too much of my daily life.

In fact in 5 years of being surrounded by Japanese literature I have (manga aside) tackled only 3 books (in English translation of course): “Norwegian Wood”, “Battle Royale” and “69”.

“Battle Royale” is the book that the controversial Japanese movie was based on. In the book (and the movie) a class of 9th grade students is taken to a deserted Island, given weapons, and forced to kill each other until there is only one winner left. The movie was a huge hit in Japan, but no U.S. distributor would touch it, especially in the post Columbine era, so I believe to this day it is hard to get a hold of in America.
The book was purely a guilty pleasure. It has no social redeeming value whatsoever, and I don’t particularly recommend it, although I do have to admit it held my interest while I was reading it.

The movie had made quite an impression on me. It was horrific, but also seemed to touch on a lot of issues: generational conflict, fascist governments, the competitive nature of Japan’s educational system, and “‘Lord of the Flies’ redux type themes” about human nature. I could go on about each of these, but there’s a lot of geek ink spilled already dissecting this movie. Just search the Internet.

I was interested in reading the book to see if it would help me to further understand the movie, but after reading the book I’ve become disillusioned with both.

To my mind, scenes of 9th grade students gunning each other down are only acceptable if it is done for a purpose. “Lord of the Flies” contained many horrific scenes of child violence, but the author was doing it for a reason. If, on the other hand, we are watching students blow each other up purely for cheap excitement, then this is the lowest form of bad taste.

The movie left that question hanging. But the book is obviously clear exploitation. It reads like a comic book made into a novel. Many of the characters are comic book type stereotypes. There is the femme fatal, the evil genius, the young hero, and his love interest, among others. There are clear evil characters and clear good characters, so it is not a deep treatise on the complexity of human nature. The violence is described vicariously seemingly with the purpose to excite, and the book is infused with the Japanese Lolita complex, so that 14 and 15 year old girls are described in disturbingly sexual terms.

“Norwegian Wood” is a love story set against the backdrop of the Japanese student movement. I’ve already reviewed it in a previous post, albeit in my usual long-winded and rambling prose.
Like “Norwegian Wood”, “69” takes place against the backdrop of the student movement.

It was made into a movie a couple years ago in Japan, but I never saw it, mostly due to the bad review it got from “The Japan Times.” After having read the book, I’m now very curious about the movie, but since I don’t have a TV it’s hard for me to see stuff no longer in the theaters.

The book is the apparently autobiographical story of a high school student stuck out in the countryside of Kyushu during the height of the student movement. He wants to get involved, but doesn’t know how to best go about it. He and his fellow students barricade the school. They take a crap on the principle’s desk, but then afterwards agonize over whether this was a revolutionary act or just a perversion. They also organize a rock and art festival in their town.

I really enjoyed this book a lot. It was funny, and I identified a lot more with the confused idealism of this book than with the cynicism in “Norwegian Wood.” Some parts of the book, like when the author mentions the awkwardness of discussing Camus in Kyushu countryside dialect, don’t translate so well. But that’s all part of the fun of reading a book from another country. If you can get your hands on a copy, I’d recommend it.

Link of the Day
"Sins of Omission: How Journalism Kisses Corporate Booty" By Media Mouse Jeff Smith

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Nazi Flags and Me

I’ve referenced this event a couple times already, but my second year in Ajimu I was teaching a class and suddenly noticed one student had a large swastika sticker attached to the breast pocket of her school uniform.

Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “ Wait a minute, isn’t the swastika just an inversion of the Buddhist symbol for good luck, which is frequently seen in Japan and other Asian countries? Are you sure you didn’t just mix up the two?”

Well, that’s what I thought at first also. “This is the 21st century. There’s no way a student is wearing a swastika badge in my class. It must be the Buddhist symbol.” But the more I looked at it, the more it looked like a swastika. I tried to remember all the Indiana Jones movies I had seen as a kid. Which way had the points on the swastika been facing? I flipped it around in my mind and did several imaginary inversions of the swastika. In the end I just gave myself a headache and completely lost my place in the lesson I was teaching.

At the end of the class I just went up and asked her. “Where did you get that?”

“From Germany,” she answered.

“You went to Germany?”

“No, Mr. Matsunaga did. He gave it to me as a souvenir.”

Next I asked Kota, the cooperating Japanese teacher. “Um, was there a student wearing a swastika in that lesson we just taught?”

He rolled his eyes. “Oh, yeah, Mr. Matsunaga has been handing those out to the students.”

Mr. Matusnaga was the social studies teacher. When we were in the staff room, I asked him about it. “So, I understand you went to Germany recently.”

At this point Kota yelled at him (in a playful way), “Yeah, you son of a bitch, your students have been wearing swastikas in my class.”

And everyone had a good laugh at it. One of the older teachers said, “Really Matsunaga, you should tell the students what those mean. We’re supposed to be doing peace education.” But that was the most upset anyone got over it.

I decided not to make an issue of it. Obviously in the West a swastika has come to symbolize white supremacy, but I was relatively sure that neither Matsunaga nor his Japanese students were adherents to this creed. Japan didn’t have a history of white supremacist movements, and so the symbol carried none of the volatile emotions it would in the West.

And what is a symbol stripped of its context? After all the Nazi swastika is only an inverted Buddhist symbol, and in Japan the Buddhist symbol is well known for representing peace. To the Japanese, I concluded, the swastika must be nothing more than an historical oddity, or something associated with Western punk rock bands.

Besides I liked Mr. Matsunaga. He was one of the younger teachers, and one of the few who made an effort to talk to me in the staff room. He was always laughing and in a good mood. I didn’t want to get him in trouble. And for that matter I really liked the student who had worn the swastika. In a classroom full of troublemakers and punk kids, she was a model student who was really enthusiastic about English. (By the way, Justin, if you’re reading this, she should be one of your 3rd years by now. Let me know if you see any Nazi paraphernalia at the high school.)

So that was the end of that episode. I did get a lot of mileage out of that story though. One day I was at a JET party, and someone said, “Hey Joel, tell your Nazi story!”

So I re-told the story about the teacher handing out the swastikas to the students, and one of the girls at the party got really upset. “Who is that bonehead teacher?” she asked. “I’d liked to strangle him.”

“Yeah, well what can you do?” I said. “The symbol doesn’t mean anything here in Japan. It’s just an historical oddity to them.”

Only much later, after I had left the party and gone home, did I remember that this girl was Jewish. After that I began to rethink the whole incident in a different light.

Maybe I should have made a bigger deal of it than I did. Maybe I should have yelled in the teacher’s lounge, “Damn it, I will not teach another class if the students are wearing swastikas!” I could have thrown something on the ground to make it more dramatic.

…Actually that probably wouldn’t have gone over too well in Japan.

Maybe I should have tried to initiate education classes about the holocaust and the Nazis at the school. They wouldn’t have let me of course. The Junior High School curriculum has no room for deviation, and the teachers I taught with never allowed me any creativity. But I could have suggested it. I could have brought in a copy of “Schindler’s List” and asked if we could make the class watch it. Or asked permission to hand out literature about the holocaust to the students. Just in general made a big deal out of it so that they would say to the students, “Listen, whatever you do, don’t wear the swastika in front of the foreigner, because he takes it seriously and he’ll be bugging us about peace education for the next month.” And if this little message had gotten through, that it is something we take seriously in other countries, than that would have been an education in itself.

The reason I bring all this up again is that last week I was walking through the shopping mall near my apartment, and saw a full size Nazi flag hanging very visibly near the window.

I debated briefly what to do. My failure to take strong action the previous time had been nagging at me ever since. However I reminded myself that this flag does not have the same charged emotions in Japan that it does in the West, and the people who run the store probably didn’t mean anything by it. Then again, a lot of my students go to this shopping mall, so I thought I should say something.

I bought a candy bar as a pretext for talking to the shop clerk. “So I see you hate Jews,” I said.

He had no idea what I was talking about, so I pointed to the flag. “That? No that doesn’t mean anything,” he responded.

“So you don’t want to kill Jews or anything like that?”

He responded with a nervous laugh. “No, that’s just something we sell.”

“So you sell it to people who hate Jews?”

“No, no, no. It has nothing to do with any of that.”

“Do you know Nazi history?” I asked.

For whatever reason, his attitude changed from nervous friendliness to annoyance at this point. Maybe it was just the final question that broke his patience, or maybe he sensed a lecture coming on if he didn’t end the conversation. He simply answered, “Yes, I know,” then deliberately looked away. I thanked him for the candy bar and left.

I didn’t want to be too hard on the guy because I understand the difference in how the flag is perceived. I felt I had made my point, and badgering him further wouldn’t have been productive.

However if other people were to ask about the flag, I think that would help to get the message across.

So, I sent the following message to the local JET list-serve:

Subject: Nazi Flag in Riverside Mall
Monday night I was in Riverside mall and saw a Nazi flag displayed very prominently from the Village Vanguard shop. It is hanging on the wall by the cash register, but clearly visible from the window.

I realize of course that for a variety of reasons this flag does not carry the same emotions in Japan that it does back home. But, especially as a lot of my junior high school students frequent this shop, I think it is a good idea to politely bring to the attention of the shopkeepers that this flag carries strong negative connotations outside of Japan.

I had a small discussion with the shopkeeper. I don't think he's a bad person, but this could be an educational opportunity for him and the rest of the shop if we bring these issues up.

If you are passing nearby Riverside mall, perhaps you could stop in and have a small talk with the shop clerks as well. I think the more people that bring these issues to their attention, the more they will realize perhaps the strong reaction this flag has for foreigners.

Just an idea.

(PS--It's not the Buddhist symbol, I checked. That was my first thought as well. This is the real Nazi flag.)

Joel


So far I’ve gotten a lot of positive responses from this e-mail (“thanks for doing this”, “Good for you”, etc). Someone even jokingly commented that the tone of the e-mail was typical of my tendency to act like everyone’s big brother. (Which is news to me. Do I really act like that?)

Whether anyone will actually follow up on my suggestion and talk to the store clerk remains to be seen, but obviously many people talking to him will be a lot more effective than just me.

For what it’s worth, Shoko thinks I went about this all wrong. I related to her my discussion with the store clerk. “Did he laugh or did he act troubled?” Shoko asked.

“He seemed pretty uncomfortable,” I said.

“Now why would you deliberately trouble the store clerk when you know that symbol doesn’t have any meaning in Japan?” she asked.

“Because I wanted him to realize that it has meaning outside of Japan.”

“Lots of people in Japan wear Crosses or the Star of David, but it doesn’t mean we’re religious. Japanese people just think they’re cool designs. It’s the same way with the swastika.”

“It’s not cool,” I said. “There are people dead because of that flag.”

With her usual patience, Shoko calmly responded, “I didn’t say it was cool. I said some Japanese people think the design is cool. And you knew ahead of time that no one cares about the meaning, so why did you bother the sales clerk? Would you be that rude back in America?”

I like to think that I would be. But I do understand her point. You have to choose your battles, and, as I said above, what power does a symbol have stripped of its context?

My Japanese tutor said the same thing. In Japan no one thinks about the meaning, so the shop clerk was probably caught totally off guard by my questions, and thought I was just some strange foreigner.

One final thought before I wrap this entry up: I’m not the only one to notice the strange acceptance of the swastika in Japan. Within weeks of first arriving in Japan, my successor Josh remarked to me how surprised he was to see a Japanese teenager on the train next to him with a swastika tattooed on his arm. I retold my story. We came to the same conclusion. He probably wasn’t a white supremacist. He probably associated it more with punk rock music than with National Socialism. But he had severely limited the number of foreign countries he can now safely travel in. (Josh writes about the event on his weblog here.)

Link of the Day
Suppose you were just thinking to yourself, "I really wish there was a pornographic movie that combined arousing sexual situations with the tomes of Noam Chomsky". The Japanese movie industry has got you covered. Read more here.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Class Room Topics Part 2

As part of the pilot program at the Elementary school, I’ve been asked to do a 5-10 minute talk at the beginning of class on topics related to American life. We call it “Joel’s Corner.”

Recently I’ve been asked to talk about the Christmas story. I enjoy talking about these things not because I’m trying to proselytize the students, but just because of the simple joy of talking about a topic that I know about. In Japan the elementary school kids know vaguely that there is a big western holiday called Christmas, but that’s about it. They don’t realize it is connected to the birth of Christ, or that the western system of dating years is also centered on Christ’s supposed birth.

Throughout the year, the school has asked me to use visual aids during “Joel’s Corner”, so I’ve been using pictures from home that show the Swagman family on various American holidays. We use the photo scanner at the school to blow them up to poster size, and then I bring them into the classroom and show it to the kids. Sometimes I wonder if my brothers, sisters and cousins have any idea how their childhood pictures are being used.

My brother and youngest sister were adopted from Korea, and this always takes a while to explain because the concept of adoption doesn’t exist in Japan. For a number of reasons, nobody adopts in Japan. The ties with extended family are stronger in Japan. Many generations often live under the same roof. So if the parents are unable to raise the child, the grandparents or other extended family usually assumes the duty.

Because it can be done secretly and quietly, unwanted pregnancies are usually taken care of by abortion in Japan. And, despite the fact that the abortion rate is through the roof here, it is considered extremely selfish to give up a child for adoption. Unless one is willing to endure social ostracism, giving a child up for adoption is essentially not an option.

There are some orphanages, but because of the importance of blood ties, no one ever adopts, and the kids stay in the orphanage until they grow up.

So not only does adoption not exist in Japan, they really don’t even understand the concept. Whereas in the West someone would look at the family picture and say, “Oh, I see your brother and sister are adopted”, in Japan the conversation goes something like this:

“Who are they?”

“They’re my brother and sister.”

“Don’t be silly. Who are they really?”

“No, really, they’re my brother and sister.”

“No, they’re obviously not. They’re not even the same race as you.”

“Well they were adopted from Korea.”

“Oh, I see. Like a Home Stay brother and sister.”

Depending on what mood I’m in, I sometimes let it go at this. If I’m feeling in a crusading mood, I’ll go through a lot of effort, and show them pictures of my brother and sister in various stages of growth to try and get them to understand that they are part of the family and aren’t getting sent back to Korea once the home stay ends.

Link of the Day
Peter's got a nice entry here comparing 2006 to 1966.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Interesting Topics in the Classroom

Most of the time I’m in the classroom, I spend the time just to the students out of a textbook, and feeling my brain cells gradually wither away from disuse.

Occasionally I get the opportunity to talk about American culture and politics. It’s rare, but I really relish the opportunity when it happens. For example last year during the election I was asked to talk about American politics a couple times (which I wrote about here and here).

In the 9th grade English class we are currently reading about Martin Luther King Jr. But despite the interesting subject material, the Japanese teacher actually devotes very little time to discussing it. Instead the textbook passage is used solely to illustrate the target grammar for the unit. It so happens that the subject of the passage is Martin Luther King, but it might as well be about Australian Rules Football. The grammar is usually the only thing we talk about.

Last year when doing this same lesson, the teacher asked me if I would say a few words to the class about Martin Luther King and racism in America. Being a history geek, I was very excited by this, and immediately started drafting notes on subjects such as the origins of racism, slave trade in America, the rise of slavery in the south because of the Agrarian society, the civil war, the ku klux klan and Southern lynchings, Emmitt Till, King’s philosophy of non-violence and the conflicts between SNCC and SCLC.

Obviously I went a little overboard, but I was convinced that using my Japanese as well as my English I could convey all this to the students. However when the time for the class actually came, the Japanese teacher talked about grammar for almost the whole class. Then with two minutes before the bell the teacher said to me, “now, could you tell the students a little bit about Martin Luther King?”

All I really had time to say was, “Yeah, Martin Luther King was a great guy. We like him a lot in America.” And then the bell rang.

Because of the yearly teacher transfers, I’m working under a different Japanese teacher this year and she’s given me good 20 minute blocks to talk to the class about King. And I’ve really enjoyed that. The students, being typically Japanese, do not ask questions or interact in any way, but they do listen, and put up amazingly well with my accented stuttering Japanese.

The students also wrote English essays on the topic of Martin Luther King, which I was given the job of proofreading and correcting. Most of them went something like this:
“I can’t forgive white people for their cruelty. In Japan we don’t have discrimination, so white people should stop it.”

Depending on how you look at it, Japan is arguable the most racist country in the world because of their perceived connection between ethnicity and national identity. For example, the descendents of Korean slave labors, imported to Japan during the war, are not allowed Japanese citizenship despite having been born and raised in Japan. Many of them have never left Japan in their lives, and don’t speak a word of Korean, but they are not Japanese citizens and if they travel must do so on a Korean passport.

Even a half Japanese child is not granted citizenship unless the Japanese parent acknowledges the child before birth.

The immigration policy is racist as well, because it allows in day laborers of Japanese descent only from Peru and Brazil.

And of course this is to say nothing of the Burakumin, the occasional violence against students attending Korean schools in Japan, and Japan’s racist colonial past in China and Korea, The Rape of Nanking, Yasukuni Shrine et cetera.

Despite all the bitching I do on this weblog, I usually make it a point not to criticize Japan to Japanese people. I don’t think people react well to outside criticism. If I want to talk about social problems I talk about problems in the United States instead. But when I saw all these compositions claiming that Japan has no racism and white people can’t be forgiven, I couldn’t hold myself back and wrote some replies to the students asking them about Koreans and Burakumin.

(But I do of course realize these are only 9th grade students, and their grasp of social issues is still developing.)

Link of the Day
I've really been enjoying Phil's weblog lately. He's got a nice writing style which makes it a pleasure to read even when he's talking about nothing. If you're not checking it regularly, you're missing out.

In particular I liked this entry:

When I first decided I wanted to be a writer, I argued endlessly (and predictably) with my parents about what's appropriate to describe: Should characters be depicted in the act of cussing? violence? sex? Since I was raised fundamentalist I actually felt like I had to expend energy defending the position that not every character in a work of fiction needs to talk and act like a nun. People who don't grow up fundamentalist don't have to waste their time on such a stupid question, though there are parallel types of censoriousness that turn up among other groups--people who don't want kids to read anything frightening, Marxists who seem to want us to confine our reading to Louis Althusser, people who want Huck Finn removed from the school library, etc.

I write only as a hobby, but I've experienced the same delimma growing up. When I was younger I used to make up my own swear words to avoid this problem, before eventually deciding that it is silly to assign any moral equivalency to words.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Harry Potter in Japan

The new Harry Potter movie opened up last weekend in Japan, only a week after its US release. (There’s no consistency with these things though. Some movies are almost a year late by the time they get to Japan).

Because I’ve been in Japan for the past five years, I’m a bit out of touch with American junior high school students. But I can vouch that in Japan Harry Potter is huge. In every junior high school classroom there are several copies of Harry Potter scattered around (in Japanese translation of course), and often two or three students will try and read it during my lesson. I’ve also been asked by female students to proof read their English fan letters to young Daniel Radcliff.

So it was not surprising that opening night for the movie would be packed. I usually try and avoid these crowds, but my friend wanted to see the movie and so we went opening night.

I went to buy tickets while my friend got popcorn. The lady at the counter was friendly as always. “Okay,” she said, “I assume you want tickets for the subtitled version instead of the dubbed. Is it okay to sit in the front?”

“Are there any seats in the back?”

“No, it’s very crowded.”

“Well, how far in the front?” I asked.

“The seats aren’t decided,” she said. “It’s an open ticket.”

“Oh. Okay that’s all right then,” I answered.

I then found my friend and advised him that we better find a seat quickly. “I didn’t really understand what she was saying to me,” I answered. “Something about seats near the front, but then she said we could sit anywhere.”

Then we saw what she meant. The theater, even 15 minutes before the movie even started, was packed. The only seats open were in the front row directly beneath the movie screen, and even then there weren’t two of them together. “Let’s just change our tickets to a later showing,” I suggested.

So we went back to the front desk. “Hopefully this won’t be a lot of trouble,” I said.

“I don’t know,” my friend replied. “This is Japan. They’re not famous for being flexible.”

Sure enough, despite the fact that the movie hadn’t even started yet, the lady refused to change our tickets. “You can’t change your tickets after you buy them,” she said. “It’s the theater’s policy.”

In Japan, when you get an answer that you don’t want, a good policy is just to pretend you don’t understand. Sometimes they get so tired of trying to explain it to you that they just give in. So we just gave our best “stupid foreigner smile” and acted like we just couldn’t understand the concept of a non-changeable ticket, and thought the problem was all in our phrasing.

“No, you don’t understand. We’d like to change the ticket to 9:30.”

“You can’t do that.”

“Change the ticket.”

“The theater doesn’t let you do that.”

“We…want…9:30…ticket…please.”

The lady became more and more exasperated. “I asked you if it was okay to sit in the front, and you said yes,” she replied.

“Yes, but I didn’t understand what you meant. When I asked how far in the front you told me it was an open ticket.”

She checked with the manager, and he said something, and with a few punches of the keyboard she gave us two new tickets. It was as easy as that once they decided to do it.

“Well we got what we wanted,” my friend said. “But I feel bad about how much we upset that ticket lady. I wonder if there was a better way we could have handled that.”

We batted ideas back and forth about different things we could have done, but in the end I think that sometimes you just have to be a jerk to get what you want. The only reason we had gotten the tickets changed was because we just refused to accept no.

I felt a bit like the ugly American. I barely do any work at my job in Japan, I get paid through taxpayer money, and then I complain about my movie tickets. Sometimes it feels like all I do in this country is take. But on the other hand, there was no way I was going to sit through a 3 hour movie with my neck craned backwards to see the screen.

After the movie, my friend, who was English, commented on all the spoken “Britishisms" in the film, and how unusual that was for an American movie. I thought this was unusual as well, especially since the books themselves had been translated into “American” for their stateside distribution.

I know I’m not the first person to raise these issues (and several years after the first book has been released, I’m jumping on the train a little late), but I think it is absolutely appalling that these books were altered for the American audience. I’m always complaining about the ignorance of Japanese people in this blog, but we Americans have got to be the stupidest people in the world. We have to have everything tailored exactly to our American tastes or we can’t absorb it.

“The Office” had to be remade with an American cast before it could be shown on network TV.

Also Japanese horror films have become very popular recently, but all of these have to be re-made for American audiences. The most interesting example I’ve seen of this is “The Grudge”. It presents an interesting experimentation in cross-cultural horror films but, because of the decision to keep the Japanese ghosts and the Japanese setting the same, it also begs the question: Why does it need to be remade at all? Was the film not scary when it was Japanese people being killed? Do we need blonde hair and blue-eyed protagonists before we can truly enjoy the film?


Obviously I’m rambling off somewhat. This website indicates the Harry Potter translation into American English wasn’t as bad as I first thought. And I do realize their children’s books but I still think a valuable educational opportunity was lost when the books were altered.

Link of the Day
I was in Japan for Thanksgiving of course, for the fifth straight year. But my sister's blog entry indicates Thanksgiving was pretty busy at the Swagman house this year.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Stupid Things I've Done: Follow Up on Passport that Went Through Washing Machine

Aside from the obvious stupidity involved in the original incident, the stupidity in this story is that I took so long to follow up on it.

If the passport had been declared invalid, I would have needed a new passport, which can only be done in person at the Osaka Embassy and would have required getting a hold of my birth certificate or other proof of citizenship. Then I would have had to get a new visa, which would mean having to get documentation from my work again, and filing out all the appropriate forms at Alien registration office. And then I would have had to get another re-entry permit, to allow me to come home this Winter break and return to Japan.

In short, the whole process would have been a huge headache, and I would want to get started on it as soon as possible so everything was in order by the time I visit home this December.

Fortunately for me though, it doesn’t sound like it’s a problem. I called the Embassy the other day. After the usual process of being transferred around to four or five different people, I finally talked to someone in charge who asked, “What does the passport look like? Did pages get torn out, or does it just look a little wrinkled like mine did when mine went through the washing machine?”

“It just looks a little wrinkled,” I answered.

“And the ink on the visa didn’t get washed away?”

“No, that all dried out perfectly.”

“Well it shouldn’t be a problem,” he said. “We see a lot of those kind of passports, and as long as you can still read the letters, it’s perfectly fine. At worst the people at the airport will advise you to get a new passport, but they won’t deny you entry into the country.”

So there you go. Hopefully this is sage advice, or else Shoko will be going to Grand Rapids by herself during the holidays, and I’ll have to stay in Japan.

Other Stupidities in Brief

As I’ve mentioned before, the elementary school I’m at now is doing a pilot English program. As part of this program they experiment with doing different parts of the day in English.

The principle wanted to start doing the morning meeting in English. I was asked to write a sample script of what the meeting might look like. I wrote something like this.

“Good morning and welcome to the morning meeting. Before we begin, I’d like to open the floor to any business not on the written agenda. Does anyone have any announcements they would like to bring to our attention? Yes, the chair recognizes Mr. So-and-so….And so on.

Aside from the English teacher, most of the staff can barely manage to say “Good morning” in English, so this was a ridiculous script. There was no way they were going to use it, but I got a kick out of writing it. Then they asked me to re-write the whole thing in easy English.

Link of the Day
I remember once in a high school current events class I was arguing that the US should work more with the UN. A classmate said, "Yes, well, what's the difference between the US and the UN? If countries don't vote the way we want them to, we cut off their funding."

I thought he was just being cynical. Turns out that's really what happens. For the past 3 years the Bush administration has cut of AID to Latin American countries which refuse to shield Americans from the fledgling International Criminal Court in The Hague. Article here.

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stupid things I've done Recently: I Got into a Car Accident/ Car Incident

To make this story even more embarrassing, of all the people to have in my passenger seat I had the Gifu University Visiting Professor of Chemical Engineering from Thailand.

I didn’t know this gentleman previously, but he needed a ride to the party, and a mutual friend asked me to pick him up. We talked about life in Japan on the car ride there.

Since he didn’t speak Japanese, he had to communicate with people in his English, which is always an uphill battle in Japan. “It’s amazing,” he told me. “Hardly anyone in Japan can speak decent English. It’s not our native language in Thailand either, but we study it and we learn it. In Japan everyone has at least 6 or 8 years of English education by the time they finish college, and no one can speak a word.”

That seems to be a common complaint,” I said.

He also talked about his students. “They’re very bright and they work very hard,” he said. “They even come in on the weekends to work on their projects. But their so obsessed with procedure that they just spend a lot of time doing little things that don’t need to be done.”

“You’d be surprised how much of that is true in the English education as well,” I commented.

So we were chatting away like that. I had some trouble finding my friend’s apartment, as I do every time. I knew the general area he lives in, but these Japanese apartment complexes all look the same and I was wandering down endless side streets. I was trying to avoid calling for directions because I always end up calling for directions. I tried to explain this to the Professor. “I can’t call for directions because he’ll really lose his patience with me. I always get lost on the way to his house.”

Eventually though I gave in and called for directions. My friend was gracious enough about it, and I listened to him explain it again. “Mmm hmm, okay, right, got it. Okay, thanks a lot. Good-bye.” As soon as I hung up I realized that I had only absorbed half of what he had told me. But maybe that would be enough.

So we were driving around the streets, looking out for the landmarks my friend had told me about, and I was trying to explain to the professor why I absolutely couldn’t call a second time for directions, when my side mirror hit the car coming the other way. The frame was on a hinge so it simply swung back like it was supposed to do. The glass on my mirror shattered.

In a way it wasn’t my fault. Japanese roads, especially Japanese roads in the countryside, are often not big enough for two cars to pass each other without one pulling over to the side. This road was especially treacherous as it had started out a bit wider, and then gradually narrowed. (It was the road’s fault, really).

It was my fault in the since that as I was looking for landmarks, I was blatantly not looking at the road in front of me. On the other hand, the car driving the other direction had been going just as fast as I was, and, since I was safely on my side of the road, I think the fault was mutual.

He thought differently though. He was an old Japanese man, and from the moment we stopped our cars he started laying into me about how I wasn’t looking at the road. And he had me there; I hadn’t been, so I didn’t argue this point. Then he accused me of not having a valid license, and I politely corrected him. Although I hate to be someone who cries “racism” everywhere, I’m pretty sure his attitude, especially the assumption that I didn’t have a driver’s license, was simply because I was foreign.

Because I drive a company car, the rules are pretty strict that I have to call the police after every accident. In fact the company accident report form warns ominously that “however slight you may think the accident, failure to properly report it to the police may have unpleasant consequences.”

The old man, whose car wasn’t damaged, didn’t feel it was necessary to call the police. I realized first of all that I didn’t have a clear idea of where I was, didn’t know the phone number for the local police, and besides I always have difficulty understanding the rough dialect the police usually seem to speak. I also imagined calling the police, waiting forever for them to get out to the countryside where we were, and then explaining to them that we had simply swiped side mirrors. And then I began to think to myself that this wasn’t so much a car accident as a “car incident”. We had simply bumped each other a bit in passing. So I never called the police. Hopefully that won’t come back to bite me in the ass.

However all in all, in 5 years of driving in Japan I think I’ve got a pretty good track record. There was one other “car incident” which occurred during my first year in Oita.

A bunch of us went out for a big night in Oita city. I was the sober driver as usual. At the end of the night we piled into my car, which was parked on the side of the road. I pulled out of my parking space, straightened out the car, stepped on the gas, and then immediately hit another parked car. Everyone had a good laugh about that and made jokes like, “Wait a minute, which one of us is the sober driver again?”

I really don’t have an excuse for this. It was just pure stupidity and not paying attention on my part. (Well, if I had to make an excuse, I would say that it was my first year in Japan, and I was still getting used to the narrow roads. Also I was somewhat distracted by the rowdy behavior of my drunken passengers. But both of these excuses are so pathetic that I would never bring them up.)

Again this was another unreported incident. I got out and looked at the damage to the other car. It was dark out and I didn’t look too hard, but seeing none, I simply got back in my car and snuck away.

Oh, and come to think about it there was also the time I caused an accident by driving too slow. That time I really didn’t have a valid drivers license. My international driving license had just expired, and it was a couple months before the local Japanese driving center could schedule me for a test. (They had just changed the law that year regarding international driving licenses, so a number of us JETs were caught by surprise when we returned from summer vacation to learn our international driving licenses were no longer valid.)

I still drove around anyway. Life in Ajimu for two months without a car would have been hard to take. But I was very careful to go exactly the speed limit.

Japan has an interesting system regarding speed limits. They set the limit ridiculously low, and then typically look the other way if you go 20 or 30 kilometers over.
So a car going exactly the speed limit on the expressway can cause problems (as I guess it would in America as well).

One night coming back from Oita city on the expressway, I was driving the speed limit, and a car came speeding up behind me not realizing how slow I was going. Then to avoid hitting me he crashed into the guardrail. I stopped the car to make sure he was all right. He wasn’t very talkative. I think he must have been either upset or embarrassed.

Not having a valid license, I didn’t want to stick around too long, so after I made sure he didn’t need any help, I drove off as he called the tow truck.

Link of the Day
My friend Matt sends me another bizarre article about Japan: Wicked and wanton woman seduces schoolboy same age as son

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Stupid Things I've Done Recently (A Series in 3 Parts)

Continuing stories of my stupidity in Japan. I’ve done enough stupid things lately that I’m going to break this into 3 separate posts.

Stupid thing # 1: Dropped a Bowling Ball on My Foot
I’m not exactly sure how I managed to do this. During our weekly Monday night bowling, I guess I must have had my left foot a little too far forward as I released the bowl. The ball left my hand and smacked right into my ankle.

It only hurt moderately, but it really swelled up fast. Within minutes after the incident, there was a round lump roughly the size of a golf ball on my left ankle. The paranoid side of me was remembering all sorts of stories I knew about people who almost lost limps because of internal bleeding and swelling.

My friends didn’t help any. “What if you dislodged the bone marrow?” someone suggested. “It could get in your blood stream and make its way up to your heart and kill you.”

I scoffed at this possibility and said no one ever died from an ankle injury. But once the idea was put in my head, it started to worry that this might be my last game of bowling. “Maybe I can get a few more strikes in before I pass away,” I said.

Someone got the idea to put ice on it, and it’s amazing what a little ice can do. The swelling went down almost immediately.

So I bought a re-usable ice pack and kept that around my ankle the next day at work. It worked wonders, but then I had to explain to everyone at work that I dropped a bowling ball on my foot.

With this added to the kitten bite, and injuring my hand trying to climb a telephone poll, I’ve had a lot of embarrassing injuries this term that I’ve had to explain at work.

Link of the Day
Via Jana's blog (which comes via Phil and Bork's blog) it appears my hometown has made the news when two people were trampled in the Holiday rush to get into Wal-marts

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Another Weekend

On Saturday we played video games in an arcade, and then we found an unused movie theater that we played charades in.

At around 6 we left to get some dinner. It was early in the evening, but the others had been drinking all through the afternoon and once again I was one of the only sober ones present.

We made quite a commotion as we walked through the city. Most of them were doing silly things. We passed a sushi shop that had a radio playing outside. Someone turned the volume up and then ran away. They saluted the Japanese people walking past, and began demanding that everyone they met on the sidewalk give them a high-five. They jumped up and touched the banners hanging from the shops just to prove they were tall enough to do it. In short, it was very 1st year JET stuff. They had only been in the country for a few months, and most of them were still a little intoxicated with all the attention.

Although age wise some of them were as old or older than me, everyone else in the group were all first year JETs. They were still going through the first year JET phase of playing things up because of all the attention they were receiving. Once upon a time that was me as well, but I feel like I’ve mostly moved past that.

I was both embarrassed to be part of this group, and at the same time regarding it with a kind of amusement to see what would happen. After all, I was always complaining about how boring things were. Maybe with all the trouble they were causing I would have a few interesting stories by the end of the night if I stuck with them.

In the end though nothing happened. I was somewhat reminded of the night Junior year when Brett and I were really bored out of our minds. In our quest for adventure we wandered around the campus creating little mischief. We moved barriers into the calvin street, and then hid and watched as campus safety came along to move them back. Eventually Brett commented about how silly the whole idea is. “All were doing is just annoying people,” he said. “The campus safety officer is just muttering under his breath about stupid kids, and that’s about it.” Its hard to create big adventures out of little acts of mischief.

Sunday
On Sunday I went to Kyoto with a group of friends.

Kyoto is of course the most important historical and cultural city in Japan. (And, for you trivia buffs, one of the four final potential targets selected for the atomic bombing. It’s frightening to walk around all the old temples and castles and think how close it all came to just being wiped off the face of the earth in one instant.)

Regular readers of this blog might recall a re-occurring them is how pathetic my traveling is. For instance, this is my fifth year in Japan, and I’ve only been to Kyoto a total of for two days (during spring break 4 years ago). Especially now that I live in Gifu, only two hours away, there is really no excuse for not getting off my ass and exploring Kyoto more.

This time we went near the mountains on the edge of the city to explore some of the old temples and shrines there. But because it was on the edge of the city didn’t mean it was any less crowded. In fact, because the leaves were changing colors, it was packed with tourists coming to see the fall leaves.

One thing about Japan is people adhere to a schedule very strictly. At certain times of the year there are certain things you must do. In the spring you must have picnics under the cherry blossom trees. In the fall you must go out and see the leaves changing at recommended scenic spots.

Kyoto is beautiful in the fall I’ll admit that. We had a lot of picturesque moments walking around through the ancient temples under the fall leaves. But I hate fighting crowds and I hate the feeling that I’m part of a rush of people being herded to a certain spot at a certain time of year just because this is one of the things “I’m supposed to do.”

Additionally I felt like, despite my best efforts, I could not help but play the clumsy bumbling foreigner. Old hunchbacked ladies half my size were scurrying about the road below my field of vision, and I repeatedly knocked into them as my eyes were focused on the next site I was heading too. I stopped at a shop to admire some shirts, and was the shopkeeper yelled at me not to block the entrance.

The group we were with was about 12 people, which is a lot of people to keep track of in a crowded tourist destination. At the beginning of the day, Adam commented to me that he just wanted to relax and he didn’t feel like spending the day trying to keep track of everyone in the crowds. I responded that it wouldn’t be that bad, but in the end Adam was right.

We had a hard time moving anywhere because we couldn’t decide where to go. Finding a place to eat lunch took forever, and by the time we finally got some food we were all hungry and cranky.

At several points we stopped to take photos. Several of us murmured about how we were blocking up the road, and how the people on either side of us were getting angry, but for some reason we stayed where we were until a picture had been taken with everyone’s separate camera.

But that’s just me complaining. Big groups are always a hassle, but at the same time can be a lot more fun. Once we got to where we were going, we had a good time. And the train ride there and back was made a lot more fun because of everyone there.

Link of the Day
Wow! Damn it now this is cool. Video of John Lennon and Bob Dylan riding in the back of a taxi in 1966. Sure they don't say anything intelligent. Sure they mumble a bit, and appearently are stoned. And yet, seeing these two legends together in the back seat, you can't help but feel like they just don't make rock stars like this anymore.